It’s always a mistake to let Americans loose in the literary china shop.
In my first post on this very blog, I praised Leonie Brinkema, the judge presiding over the Moussaoui trial, for conducting herself with a modicum of decency and fairness and with a minimum of prosecutorial, rah-rah-American zeal. I haven’t exactly revised that opinion, but after reading the account of the last day of sentencing, I think it's worth noting that despite a basic decency and a scrupulous fairness, Judge Brinkema has no better understanding of just what occurred in her courtroom than does the vapid American media or the vacuous American public.
In her final address to Moussaoui, Brinkema said, "As for you, Mr. Moussaoui, you came here to be a martyr and to die in a great big bang of glory, but to paraphrase the poet T. S. Eliot, instead you will die with a whimper." In the whole corpus of English literature, could she have chose a more infelicitous work than "The Hollow Men" to express our Anglo-Saxon jurisprudential triumphalism?
We are the hollow menThomas Stearns ain't talkin' 'bout no Mohammedans, that’s fer damn sure. Dear Judge Brinkema, The world-ending whimpering that concludes Eliot’s poem about spiritual dessication and the dilemma of modernity ("Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion") afflicts us. We are the hollow men—as if the pronouns aren’t clear enough.
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Brinkema surely only knows that famous world-ending-not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper. But since Moussaoui was given to preening about America’s impending defeat at the hands of the truly faithful, it might do the judge well to reread the penultimate section of the poem:
IVPuts a rather different spin on it now, doesn’t it? (I hate to be crass, but really . . . Besides which, I object to quoting a Grail-quest, Crusader-kingdom aficionado while sentencing, ya know, a self-professed Muslim counter-crusader.)
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.
I’m circling around the main point. Whether in The Waste Land or “The Hollow Men,” Eliot explicitly embraces despair that the West is not just declining, but declined, that out of the sight of that which is Godly and Holy, out of communion with the made world, having dissipated the spirit and abandoned communal ritual (metaphorized, in Eliot’s oeuvre, by the Grail quest more than anything else—the recherche for the venerated object-symbol of lost authenticity), having, ultimately, debased ourselves as spiritual beings, we’ve nothing left but to witness the decline of all our kingdoms, the temporal kind and the otherworldly. "There, the eyes are / Sunlight on a broken column."
I don’t share Eliot’s conclusions or convictions, of course (even less so as they metamorphosed toward High Church Anglicanism); I’m as spiritually debased as they come. But it hardly does one of our greatest poets proper service or pays him adequate respect to turn his words on their head as an indictment of a man who, after all, is making the same claims, albeit very crudely and inconsistently: that we’ve become Crusaders unaware of our own agnosticisms, searching for a golden grail rather than the sacral symbol that contains the essence of our divinity. Hell, you don’t even have to read Eliot for that. Just watch Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. "He chose . . . poorly."
Anyway, there’s an inescapable bathos to the end of this trial, as the families of the 9-11 dead got their chances to speak in open court. You don’t have to condone what Moussaoui claimed (rather fantastically, if you ask me) to have done and supported to recognize a terrible truth in his final statements. Even a monster can tell the truth. After listening to the litany of lives he’d ruined, he said: “Your humanity is a very selected humanity—only you suffer, only you feel.” That the judge then saw fit to bookend that condemnation with unintentional commentary on the hollowness of that self-professed feeling . . . well . . .
In the third year of our murderous rampage through Iraq, where we’ve killed tens of thousands in pursuit of abstract policy goals and chalked them up as unfortunate but necessary (and therefore uncountable) sacrifices, it's a shame to have to hear it from a stooge who imagines himself a soldier.
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom